Exclusive: Why Two Producers and Friends Embarked On The Amazing Journey of TOMMY THE MUSICAL

The Who's TOMMY is Tony-nominated for Best Revival of a Musical.

By: May. 21, 2024
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Exclusive: Why Two Producers and Friends Embarked On The Amazing Journey of TOMMY THE MUSICAL
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As the 77th Annual Tony Awards quickly approach, BroadwayWorld has invited the producers of the Best Production nominees to reflect on their experiences in bringing their shows to Broadway in this stellar season.

Today, we hear from producers Stephen Gabriel and Ira Pittelman, who contributed the below essay about their Tony-nominated Best Revival of a Musical, The Who's TOMMY.

So much of human experience is recorded through our senses. These memories inform so much of who we are, and what we become in life. Sights, sounds, smells, touch, e.g. “I remember what I was wearing when I heard that song”, “That smell reminds me of a trip to the mountains as a child”, “That light on the water reminds me of my first heart break”. These are, many times, immediate and viscerally felt experiences. TOMMY is a show about what happens when these crucial senses become interrupted, and the joy of reconnecting them and rediscovering one’s humanity. For the audience, TOMMY works not only on the level of the story being told on stage, but also on a personal, immediate level of reliving - or discovering - one of the great, culturally iconic albums that shaped the last 50 years of popular music.

As we watch audiences, we see the show trigger deeply embedded memories for those who knew TOMMY from childhood. But equally exciting is to watch those encountering this music and story for the first time become overwhelmed with the emotional impact of the music, enhanced by visually thrilling story telling.

However, it wasn’t always clear that TOMMY could re-enter the zeitgeist of current day.

Released in 1969, in the heyday of great creative output by the most culturally defining artists of a generation – Jimmy Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Janice Joplin, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, and of course, Pete Townshend and The Who – TOMMY changed the genre of popular music. Performed at the Metropolitan Opera, at Woodstock as the sun was rising, turned into a trippy movie, performed in star-studded concerts, and finally in 1992, transformed into a musical, TOMMY once again changed a genre.

Frank Rich said in The New York Times in 1993, “This show is not merely an entertainment juggernaut, riding at full tilt on the visual and musical highs of its legendary pinball iconography and irresistible tunes, but also a surprisingly moving resuscitation of the passions that made 'Tommy' an emblem of its era. Those associations reverberate within the piece, there to be tapped for the Who's generation, even as the show is so theatrically fresh and emotionally raw that newcomers to 'Tommy' will think it was born yesterday.”

But therein lies the problem…how could we possibly revive this enshrined icon of a show and succeed?

We now have multiple audiences and memories to draw from -  The Who fans who devoured the album in the 70’s (like us!), the musical theater fans who remember the day they saw the show in the 90’s, and those who only heard about it, but are dying to see it for the first time. However, we as producers and our whole creative team felt the weight of what a new production of TOMMY might look like. As our director and co-book writer, Des McAnuff, said recently, we were afraid of not changing it enough, but equally afraid of changing it too much.

The Who's Tommy

We are proud to say that the production at the Nederlander Theatre does speak to the times we live in, and much of that has to do with the visionary genius of Pete Townshend, as much as it does the inspired approach that Des, Lorin Latarro, Ron Melrose, David Korins, Peter Nigrini, Sarafina Bush, Amanda Zieve, Gareth Owen and the rest of the creative team has brought to this production. When TOMMY was released in ’69 and even 20-some years later as a musical, our culture did not speak of trauma, reflection, and redemption in a way that language of today currently provides. The resounding feedback we hear is that ‘the story-telling has so much more clarity than I remember.” Of course, this was one of our goals, but in some ways the world is ready to process it in a way that in fact does have more clarity. Because of this, TOMMY engenders dialogue. You want to talk about it after you see it. And we are most proud to say, people are coming back 2, 3, 4, and 5 times to see it again. Perhaps because not all the layers are discovered the first time through.

While visually expansive and pushing the edge of what is currently seen on Broadway, this new version is, at its roots, created from human-driven story theater. On the deck everything is moved/motivated by actors. We borrow from the world of puppetry by having some actors disappear in head-to-toe black masking. These ‘creatures’ invisibly move doors, windows, mirrors, chairs, and people. The effect is intimate. It brings the esoteric down to human scale and greatly assists in centering the story on this boy, on his parents, on the sometimes cold society around them, and finally on rediscovered love.

And the music! Forget story for a moment. One could close their eyes (although you might miss some awesome stuff) and truly bask in the sound. Pete’s melodies are unforgettable, instantly recognizable and ingrained in one’s brain even if being heard for the first time. Combined with the sonic impact of the best mixed rock concert on Broadway, TOMMY unconsciously engages the brain and stirs the body in a viscerally thrilling way.

When asked why it works, much credit has to be given to this music. But as we know from our most cherished sensory memories, combine the best music with lights, sound, movement, all surrounded by others experiencing the same thing, and a people leave with a new ‘I’ll never forget that’ moment.

And that is why we believed that TOMMY needed to be revived, re-examined, and re-discovered. We knew that if we let the music and story speak, in the hands of a passionate creative team, it couldn’t help but succeed and pass along the iconic nature of this work to a new generation.

If you lean into this journey, TOMMY delivers in a way that only theatre can.